Milwaukee Gets Nuked! The Cream City’s Forgotten “Operation Alert” Air Raid Drills

Aug. 4, 2016
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April 17, 1959, 10:59 p.m., Downtown Milwaukee.

People go about their regular Friday morning routines. Women wait at bus stops and men stride along with briefcases. At a Wisconsin Avenue jewelry shop, the friendly conversation of the man behind the counter and a customer carries through the open window, but is stomped out by the growling murmurs of street traffic. As the big clock on City Hall grinds to the 11 o’clock hour, a piecing siren shatters the humdrum nature of this sunny spring day. It’s cry rises and falls and others from all across the city join it. Nearly everyone knows what to do. People hurriedly pull their cars to the side of the road and flee. Pedestrians take cover. It’s an air raid siren. Soviet bombers are on their way.

This was, of course, only a test. It was the 1959 edition of “Operation Alert,” a civil defense exercise that was held in dozens of major American cities held annually between 1954 and 1962. The drill was familiar to Milwaukee city and county officials, who were shuttled out of the area to special “command posts” during the drills. Prior to 1959, however, the only public participation during the event – except for assistance from local Boy Scout troops – was a brief disruption of radio and television service for special CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) alerts. The CONELRAD alerts broadcast emergency information while rapidly switching transmission stations to prevent enemy bombers from being able to use them to center attacks. After a few minutes of running a recorded message on the pre-designated CONELRAD frequencies (640 and 1240), normal broadcasts returned and Milwaukee went back to its typical routine.


Pictured Above: A New York City pacifist is ordered off the streets during an Operation Alert Drill.

On the day after these annual drills, the newspapers carried the grim results of the simulated attacks the city suffered. In 1954, two hydrogen bombs landed on Milwaukee, one at Mitchell Field and the other at North Fifth and Cylbourn. Huge areas of the city were wiped out in these imagined attacks, with an estimated 107,000 killed and 144,00 injured. In the civil defense control center for the area, evacuations were simulated, with citizens being hustled from the metropolitan area on streetcars, busses, and – in what would have been my preferred method – loaded 4,000 apiece onto Grand Trunk carferry boats and zipped towards to middle of the lake.

For the 1959 drill, Milwaukee citizens were asked to participate. At the sound of the siren, they rushed into alleyways, door-frames, and flattened themselves against walls. The Milwaukee Sentinel marveled at the silent and still downtown streets during the test, the only noise being the idle conversation of the many office workers leaning from their windows to watch the surreal scene unfold. Police reported little trouble to getting citizens to comply with the drill. In New York City, police actually had the authority to arrest people who did not seek cover. But in Milwaukee, the stubborn ones – evidently more interested in keeping their lunch dates than surviving thermonuclear war – were merely issued civil defense literature detailing the importance of being ever-prepared for the worst.

At 11:20, after five minutes of stillness, the all-clear was sounded and life returned to normal. Government officials, however, remained at the posts at “Milcocity,” the emergency command post in Waukesha, until the full attack simulation had played out. The results of the 1959 drill showed a great improvement over 1956. The ’59 attack dropped only one bomb – at the convergence points of Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Waukesha, and Washington counties. The rerouted blast was evidently the result of the new ring of Nike defense missile bases that ringed the area – including the lakefront battery at the present-day site of the festival park. The result was a mere 45,000 dead and 32,000 injured. Overall, the city of Milwaukee fared much better, while the suburbs (civil defense officials admitted that Menomonee Falls and Germantown would have been wiped from the map) did much worse.

Even with the deathly implications of the drill, some Milwaukeeans still managed to find humor that day. One wag, watching people duck and cover on Wisconsin Avenue as the imaginary Soviet bombers streaked towards the city, observed that downtown was “so quiet you could hear a bomb drop!”

To hear more about this and other weird tales of Milwaukee’s past, join Matthew J. Prigge on the MONDO MILWAUKEE Boat Tour – this Wednesday evening at 8 pm aboard the Vista King – get tickets NOW


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